How This Military Veteran Switched Gears To Tech And Set Her Career On Autopilot

This is a candid series on product leaders making an impact across the globe. You can read more interviews here.

Brittany Keith is a Staff Product Manager at Tesla, leading the product management of multiple internal systems in Fremont, California. She started her career in building software with a background in Oceanography from the U.S Naval Academy. She has a Master’s in Business Administration from Duke University. A native of Maryland, Brittany grew up on the East Coast of the U.S. taking a serious interest in running. What started as a way to gain extra credits took her to become one of the top 25 runners in the county. She co-writes with her mother Patricia Friend about tips for career advancement on their blog

You can follow her here.

Thank you so much for joining, Brittany! How are you doing? I’m curious how you are finding work from home.

Our team has been doing really well moving from the office to a virtual space. We just recently had a conference call where one of my engineers sang and played the piano as a way to de-stress over video chat with the team. Most of the team has been together for over two years now, so we’re almost like a family. So this close relationship with my team helps. I just took on the management of a third internal product — our CRM system and I can’t meet the new users and the new stakeholders in person. So there’s a lot of new things to learn in new ways. 

Your website has a lot of valuable content. There’s one that I found particularly intriguing — Your mom’s take on losing her job. She seems like an ultra-positive woman. How much of an influence has your mother been in your professional life?

Thank you! My mom has taught me so much about hard work, dedication, and relationship building. She is in Corporate Communications and Public Relations. She has worked for several Fortune 500 companies. So when I was a kid she would always take me to the events at her work or within the community. I remember her telling me to go say hello to county representatives, the CEO of her company, or the President of the college she worked at.

So, from a young age, I learned that senior executives were just like us. As my mom said, “They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.”  

My mom helped me to realize just how important relationship building is – and let me tell you, she is the QUEEN of building relationships.

She also taught me to persevere and to “reach for the stars.” My favorite family quote shared between my mom, my sister, and myself is: “Carpe Diem” or “Seize the Day”. My mom told me that anything is possible with A LOT of hard work. Being a single mother, I saw my mom do just that. She had a full-time job, was going to school part-time for her Master’s Degree, and was taking care of two daughters. It wasn’t until a few years back when I was going to school for my MBA and working full-time, that I called my mom and said, “I don’t know how you did it, Mom. You somehow made it work doing all of that while taking care of us. I know it’s two decades late, but thank you.” And she proceeded to cry. 

My mom is truly my inspiration. 

You have a Bachelor’s degree in Oceanography from the United States Naval Academy and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Duke University. How did this combination of degrees open doors to you in your career?

Since I was a kid, I’ve always had an interest in the weather and the ocean – from dolphins to hearing the waves crash on the shore, I just love every aspect of the air and the sea. In fact, my dad even had a mini-weather station set up for me as a kid. I remember watching the Weather Channel with him daily. So, when I had an opportunity to study this at the U.S. Naval Academy, I jumped at the chance.

Going to the Naval Academy has opened up many doors in my career. The first corporate role that I got at Mazda was largely in part due to my attending the U.S. Naval Academy. The hiring manager told me that he knew a graduate from there and that if I could survive the rigors of the academy, then I can do great things at Mazda. 

Going to Duke University for my Executive MBA was my “Hail Mary” school. I applied for the first time and didn’t get in. They told me to wait another year and apply again when I had more experience. So I did, and I got in on the second try. Going to Duke opened the door for me to get into Tesla. My friend Dharini found a listing on the Duke Career site for an opportunity there and she mentioned it to me. If it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be at Tesla today.

What drew you to working with automotive companies?

I ended up getting out of the military early, due to a “layoff”, what the military calls a Reduction in Force (RIF). So, my plans of staying in the military for 10+ years abruptly came to an end just 8 months into my career. It was really difficult initially to figure out what sector would fit an Oceanography degree with only 8 months of experience. I struggled with this the first few months after I left the military. 

So, I started applying to any job that looked remotely interesting for someone with entry-level experience. I interviewed for an analyst role at Deutsche Bank (they said no because I had no Excel experience). Then I interviewed for a role as a Financial Planner and found that just didn’t seem interesting to me. Next, I interviewed with Mazda at their Southeast Region Headquarters. They asked me if I had experience with Excel, I said “No, but I’ll learn it.” Then they asked if I had experience with data analysis, I said: “No, but I’ll learn it.” Next, they asked if I had experience in marketing or sales. Again, I said, “No, but I’ll learn it!” Needless to say, I didn’t think I would get the job. But, I got the offer! It was the first offer I got that also sounded like a fun role, so I took it! 

So you can say that I didn’t choose the automotive industry, the automotive industry chose me! 

What led you to product management?

I fell into it. There seem to be two ways to it — a calculated approach of doing a computer science degree in your bachelor’s or you are in some other role and you happen to start interacting with Product Managers. And that’s what happened to me. I was in a Business Development role solely focused on creating programs to improve sales. This was at Volvo.  They wanted me to start working with the IT Team and be the business owner. So not necessarily the Product Manager.  So I started working with their IT Team like system architects and engineers. Then they had a reorg and were glad to have me as a CRM Product Manager. Back then I had no idea about SQL, APIs, or databases. I learned everything from my team there. How to write a use case, acceptance criteria, JIRA ticket. So all that I learned on the job, I was able to take to Tesla. I had to be in the right place at the right time. 

How does your day at work look like?

As a Digital Product Manager, a large part of my role consists of problem-solving across multiple business departments — ie. Sales, Delivery, Service, Energy. Those problems vary from day-to-day, but largely I and other Product Managers work to connect the dots and come up with creative solutions as fast as humanly possible. I also spend a large part of my day with my engineers brainstorming possible technical solutions and balancing the pros and cons. This is also time for us to plan for upcoming software releases and prioritize what work should come next. The rest of my time is spent learning about new problems, having focus groups, spending time with the users of each tool, building relationships, and setting expectations with my stakeholders.  

What prior experience or hard skills you wish would have made your work life easier?

Definitely, basic computer science skills – including knowledge of basic coding, how APIs work, database architecture, and SQL. You don’t have to know how to code to be a Product Manager, but the knowledge of these items would have helped me astronomically at the beginning of my PM career. I’ve been super lucky to have amazing engineers that have taught me these skills over time. So, if you are an aspiring Product Manager and you don’t have these skills yet, don’t fret. Just be incredibly willing to learn and don’t be shy to ask an engineer for help. 

Tell me about specific incidents that made you feel validated and encouraged during your time at Mazda, Volvo, and Tesla.

At Tesla, my manager told me recently that I should take MORE risks. At most mature companies, you would never hear these words from your manager — in fact it would probably be quite the opposite. My manager’s feedback opened the door for me to push outside my comfort zone and encouraged me to try new things as a PM. Whether it’s a new feature or pushing something live faster, my manager validated for me that failure is okay, as long as we learn from it. 

Two of the most important soft skills of being a PM?

  1. Relationship Management: Most product managers have a good number of stakeholders, so it’s incredibly important to be able to connect with them on a personal level. Building sincere relationships with each person from cross-functional partners, fellow product managers, and executives allows for work to be more efficient and also fun. I find that asking people about a hobby they enjoy or perhaps a pet of theirs that over time you become not just coworkers, but friends too. 
  1. Conflict Management: As a Product Manager, you often get stuck in the middle of limited resources and endless requests from your stakeholders. Being able to manage escalations and prioritize quickly will be of utmost importance. In software, there will always be bugs, and there will always be room for improvement. Logically walking the impacts on the user or customer and the ROI or revenue impacts with the stakeholders can often help you prioritize quickly and manage expectations.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

As a PM, we often have to use our influencing skills to drive the progress of the product(s) we own. The hardest part of being a Product Manager is that the engineering team typically does not report to you and your stakeholders often aren’t even in the same department. So, how do you as a PM drive forward progress when those people don’t directly report to you? Enter the need for influencing skills – one of the most important, but hardest skills to master. 

If you come into a proposal too pushy, your stakeholders will build a brick wall around you. If you come into a proposal too shy, your stakeholders may not see the benefit or importance of your idea. This is where relationship management also helps! (Having a good relationship with someone can help them be more open to your ideas.) So, you must walk the fine line of being confident enough for someone to trust you, mixed with having a true passion for your idea (that is contagious), added in with a little bit of flexibility (as you may need to tweak your idea just a bit to get acceptance of it). 

What are the things that you asked your employer(s) that left a massive impact on your career?

Asking for what you want can often be intimidating, especially due to the fear of rejection that comes with it. By asking for what you want – even if you are turned down initially – you’re making your plan known and bringing awareness to what you want in the future. I’ve made more of a concerted effort over the last several years to ask for what I want and it truly has made a drastic impact on my career.

Some may assume that hard work and dedication to the company directly correlates with a promotion or an increase in responsibility. That may be true to some extent. But, if you aren’t asking for it, someone else probably is, and that could be the difference between you getting the promotion or not. 

Have you faced major challenges as a woman? If yes, how did you handle it? 

Breaking the glass ceiling of people leadership in the corporate world was incredibly difficult for me. I went to one of the world’s top leadership schools and had people leadership experience while in the military, and yet I was still told that I wasn’t ready because I didn’t have “corporate leadership experience.” So, after trying multiple times for leadership roles at Volvo, I decided to leave and go to Tesla. I’ve now been a people manager for one year, and I am incredibly happy I’ve finally broken that glass ceiling! 

We see a lot of people being career-driven in the Bay Area. How do you arrange your life around work and family? How does it impact your relationship with your partner?

This is a great question! Incidentally, my husband also works for Tesla. So that helps to some degree. If it weren’t for that, it might be hard as a spouse on software release nights, when I’m working until 11 pm. And perhaps you wouldn’t understand the mission and how driven everybody is at the company.

Most spouses would say: “Why are you working so hard? Spend more time with me!”

But my husband Jason gets it.

That’s great! I’m so glad we found partners who get it.

Yeah… so from a relationship standpoint, we fit in time together whenever we can. We do try hard to structure our evenings with at least two or three hours of no work. Obviously, sometimes you can’t do that, if there’s a critical issue or something. But I try hard to create some semblance of our work-life balance.

Could you tell us how your spouse has been supporting you career?

Jason has been wonderfully supportive. He quit his job to come out here to California. I had been putting a lot of pressure on myself juggling between the three products which were making things more stressful. I was verbally sharing my stress with him and he was like “Brittany, you can’t take things so seriously.” 

I think, especially as women of type A personalities, we tend to hold ourselves to high standards and put that extra pressure on our shoulders. He does a wonderful job at recognizing when I’m doing that and just says, “Chill.”

My husband even jokes with me still to this day that I still owe him 100 more meals to make up for all the cooking he did for me when I was doing my MBA.

What tools do you like and use the most? (Mobile apps, hardware or even interesting daily objects that have improved your quality of living)

I own a Tesla Model 3 named Joules, and this car has absolutely improved my quality of living. The user interface makes incredible sense, there aren’t a ton of buttons everywhere, giving the car a simplistic feel. The ability to use Autopilot in Bay Area traffic has saved me many gray hairs. In fact, I did a little experiment once with my fitness watch. I recorded my heart rate with Autopilot off while driving to work (which means I was driving manually). Then, I recorded my heart rate the next morning with Autopilot on (which means the car was doing most of the driving, I just have to supervise it). Both recordings were in rush hour traffic at roughly the same time of the morning. My average heart rate was 10 beats lower with Autopilot set to ON.

So, even though this was just one small test, it appears that my Model 3 has quite literally made an impact on my quality of life and even my health.

You seem to have a serious interest in running marathons. Have you always been into running? Tell me more about how you developed this interest. 

The teacher of my 8th grade English class also happened to be the Cross Country Coach at my soon to be high school. One week in the fall, she said she would give extra credit to anyone who volunteered at their cross country meet that was held at the high school that weekend. So I went – because I needed the extra credit. 🙂 As I watched girls line up at the start line, they were huddled with their arms around each other, as a final opportunity for some motivation before the start of the race. The gun then shot to signal the start of the race and like a stampede, they all shot off the line together. I was amazed and intrigued. 

So, a year later at the start of my Freshman year of high school, I signed up for the cross country team because I thought it would help me build up my stamina for basketball in the fall (that was my favorite sport growing up). Let me tell you, I was TERRIBLE at running. My mom would often stand on the sidelines at our meets waiting with the group of parents for their kid to run by. As each child ran by, the group of parents would shrink as the parents moved on to the next viewing point. My mom stood there and stood there as the group got smaller and smaller. She was usually one of the last mom’s standing as I would round the corner sucking every bit of air I could into my lungs. I was slow and often second-guessed if I would ever be good at running. But, I got tired of being nearly last in every race (and my mom wouldn’t let me quit – because I had to finish what I started.)

What started as just a means to get in shape, transitioned to a burning desire to be in the Top 25 at the County Cross Country Meet. By my senior year, I was nearing the top ¼ of the pack of runners. My mom was no longer the last mom standing, and at the County Meet that year, I did get the Top 25. Since then, I’ve never stopped running. In the military, we had the mindset of always pushing yourself a little farther than you think you can mentally go. So I started running 10k races, half-marathons, then I ran my first marathon in 2009 as a Junior in the U.S. Naval Academy. That same year, I signed up for my first Ultra Marathon, a 50 Mile race held near my hometown in Maryland. Running is a mental break for me, it allows me to organize my thoughts, and it is a stress reliever. 

It also has opened the doors as an opportunity for some quality father-daughter time. My dad got into running many years back because he wanted to get in better shape. He asked me to train him for his 5k race. So I did and several months later he ran his first 5k and did fantastically! He then said, “I want to train for a half marathon. Can you train me?” Several months later, he said “I want to train for a marathon. Can you train me?” Living in Florida at the time, I trained him from afar by writing up a training routine for him. We then chose a marathon to run – together. This is one of the best memories I have with my dad – crossing the finish line together with him next to me. 

After almost 20 years of running, I have that extra credit to thank for a lifetime of running. 

If you’re into the habit of reading non-fiction, what’s the one book that you’d recommend to someone you meet? 

Dare: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage, and Career for Women in Charge by Becky Blalock – This book shares some great stories about women who have made it to the top. It’s a great read for any woman in the corporate world – no matter what stage of your career.

What’s a personal goal that you’re shooting for? Say, a North Star. Okay if there aren’t any. 

Simply put, my personal goal in life is to help others. Whether it’s through mentorship, public speaking, or simply a LinkedIn post – I want to help others achieve their definition of greatness. 

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